Two Montanans testify at Tester’s Senate hearing

Senator chairs hearing to improve health care for Indian veterans

(WASHINGTON, D.C.) – Two Montanans today testified at a Veterans’ Affairs hearing chaired by Senator Jon Tester to improve health care for American Indian veterans. 

Tester—who also serves on the Indian Affairs Committee—requested the hearing last month.

Tester and his colleagues questioned and heard testimony from witnesses including Kevin Howlett, Director of Tribal Health for Montana’s Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, and Buck Richardson, Minority Program Coordinator at Ft. Harrison.

The hearing focused on progress between the Veterans Administration (VA) and the Indian Health Service (IHS) in making quality health care accessible to Indian veterans, especially in rural areas like Montana.  The hearing also focused on the VA’s need to overcome cultural barriers to better serve veterans in Indian Country.

“Neither the VA or IHS have put the unique needs of Indian veterans front and center,” said Tester, noting the challenges facing veterans living on Montana’s seven Indian reservations.  “We hear the horror stories of a veteran walking in to an IHS facility only to be told to go to the VA hospital hundreds of miles away, and of the veteran walking into a VA facility only to be sent to IHS.”

Tester called the “ping-ponging” of veterans unacceptable. 

“Promises were made to the men and women who put their lives on the line for our nation,” Tester added.  “We need to make sure that those promises are kept.”

There are currently about 4,600 Native American veterans enrolled in the VA in Montana.  The actual number of Indian veterans in the state, however, is believed to be much higher.

Tester is the author of the Rural Veterans Health Care Improvement Act, which includes several provisions addressing health care concerns for Indian veterans.  The bill would also improve mental health services, provide grants for innovative programs that improve health care for rural veterans and lock in the VA’s current 41.5-cents per mile travel reimbursement for disabled veterans.

Tester’s bill, which would improve care for the more than 100,000 veterans living in Montana, has cleared the Veterans’ Affairs Committee and is awaiting a vote by the full Senate.